NEW YORK – On September 10, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Friends of Saint Nicholas hosted a moving ceremony and the first ever lighting of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center presided over by His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America.
“There are no religions that teach violence and death, but religions that teach love, brotherhood and peace to the people… At the World Trace Center, the Greek Orthodox performed a miracle with the help of God and Saint Nicholas,” Archbishop Elpidophoros said during the ceremony on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Members of the Greek-American community, local politicians, representatives of Hellenic associations and organizations, relatives of the Greek-Americans who lost their lives that day were among those who attended the historic event, the lighting of St. Nicholas Church, which was realized after so many difficulties and challenges.
The Parthenon of Orthodoxy, as many described it, was lit shortly after 8 PM sending a message of hope that after the darkness, there is the resurrection.
His Eminence said that he was deeply moved on this special day for Hellenism, Orthodoxy, and the United States, noting that “the only house of worship that existed in the place where thousands of people perished in the name of religion, after 20 years, on the day of the anniversary of this tragedy experiences a resurrection and a miracle… because every resurrection is a miracle. And this miracle is from God, it is from St. Nicholas. But at the same time, it is a miracle that like all miracles God and Saint Nicholas perform comes about because of people's hard work. Because some people prayed, prayed very hard, made sacrifices, and made donations. It is Mr. [Santiago] Calatrava who put in his art, it is the friends of St. Nicholas who put in their effort, their funds, and the American people who contributed to experience this important day.”
His Eminence continued: “We in the Holy Archdiocese of America and the Greek Orthodox community perceive and feel this love not only as an honor and a day of joy for all of us but we also perceive it as a responsibility that is on our shoulders, to restore the reputation and name of Orthodoxy and of religion in general, because let us not forget that this terrorist act was done in the name of religion.”
He also noted that where there was ashes and death "we resurrected a monument inspired by the most important monument of Orthodoxy and Hellenism: the Aghia Sophia of Constantinople which Mr. Calatrava imagined and designed with a very new, modern, yet traditional and creative way. We illuminate all the monuments from the outside. This monument will bring light from the inside out and this feature we wanted to promote today on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of September 11th. So we have a monument that will remind us that no matter what anyone does, the most important monument of Christianity cannot be turned into anything else because even if we keep silent, the stones themselves will shout. It is a day of joy and glory for Hellenism, Orthodoxy, America.”
Father Alexander Karloutsos pointed out that the day belongs to those Greek immigrants who in 1892 bought the building to house St. Nicholas Church. Back then, it was close to where it stands today.
“If it were not for Mr. Maniatis later who insisted on not selling the church, we would not be here at this time. We must always think of the pioneers and we must honor them. The Church will honor our nation, our faith, our families and our hopes. And we should be proud. Orthodoxy will shine, Hellenism will shine and give light to the whole world as Greece has always been the light of the world.”
Fr. Karloutsos made special reference to those who fought to raise money for the construction of the church. He noted that “when we say that the Greek community raised the money for the church, yes, it raised about $5 million. Those who collected and gave the most money were the Greeks who worked hard, succeeded, and had the money. There are about 35 families and eight organizations.”
Michael Psaros, Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, member of the Executive Committee of the Archdiocese, and Vice President of the Friends of St. Nicholas told The National Herald: “I am just excited. There is only one word to describe what is happening today. Miracle, something I have said many times in the last two years to His Eminence. And today a miracle happened. What happened today is the light that comes out of the darkness, the good that wins over evil, the Resurrection that comes after death. Today must be the most important day in the history of the Orthodox Church in America and around the world. And as the Archbishop said, we built our own American Aghia Sophia here, our own American Parthenon. I want to thank him for his responsibility to raise the money. To all those who challenged us, to all those who said we would not succeed, who did not have the faith, I have this to say: It happened, we succeeded.”
Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and benefactor of the Stephen and Areti Cherpelis Greek Afternoon School of the St. Nicholas community in Flushing, Stefanos Cherpelis characterized the night of the lighting of St. Nicholas at the WTC as “the most historic point in my life. For the Greek community, it means rebirth like the phoenix that rises from the ashes. It is a very historic event, not to be repeated and we must contribute, all Greeks and Orthodox, to this church which is a touchstone for the 3,000 who were killed here. From today, it will function as an Orthodox church for all the people of the earth, all religions, for all faiths,” he said.
The Stephen and Areti Cherpelis Greek Afternoon School principal Panagiota Lilikaki commented on the historic night: “What is happening tonight is the hope for Hellenism and Christianity but also unity. Hellenism was waiting for the reopening with great emotion and this moment is historic for all of us, Christians everywhere.”
Aravella Simotas, lawyer and former New York State Assembly Member for Astoria, remembers visiting the church many times in the past to pray before a trial. “I am here to see up close the lighting of St. Nicholas. I remember when I was working for Judge [Nicholas] Tsoukalas, he brought us here to pray. And when we were anxious he told us to come to church. This church symbolizes the struggle of the Greeks who came to America and built it, but also for the strength of the Greeks who, when it was demolished on September 11, crossed mountains to rebuild it. It was not easy but here we are and I am very proud. Its reopening means hope for humanity, for our youth and for Christians.”
Anthoula Katsimatides, who lost her brother John on the day of the attack on the Twin Towers, said: “After 20 years, the Church of St. Nicholas has been revived. What we felt tonight was a hope, a peace, a confidence that Saint Nicholas will come to life again and will be present for all and not only for the Greek Orthodox, to come, to say a prayer, to feel a peace in their soul and heart.”